Like most adults, I make a conscious effort to forget I was once 16, emo and awful. How unfashionable, then, to admit The Perks of Being a Wallflower spoke to me. But as a jaded grownup, I’ve cultivated an effete understanding of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 pop novel, the one that a dozen years ago seemed like the skeleton key to every hyperbolized shackle adolescence slapped on my wrist. It’s overwrought and pandering. Its privileged players are self-obsessed, unappreciative of everything they have. They should just grow up already. I did. Armed with all that retrospective salt, I was poised to hate the film adaptation of the pubescent phenomenon, written and directed by Chbosky himself. Then it punched me in the throat. It’s earnest and remarkable, the tenor of its young cast vigorous and transporting. And all those perceived shortcomings turn out to be its truest strengths. Free from epistolary format, Perks on screen unspools at a lush, unrushed rate.
Wounded by the suicide of his only friend, bookish, perma-pained Charlie (Logan Lerman) dreads his ascension into high school. He finds release in literature, fed to him by a prescient teacher (Paul Rudd), eventually latching on to Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), step-sibling classmates who embrace their off-kilter social standing. They waltz Charlie through the rites of suburban punkletdom — drugs, booze and the manna that is “good music” (yes, The Smiths) — while harboring agonies of their own. Outlandish Patrick, nailed by Miller in the movie’s standout performance, is gay, carrying out a dangerous secret relationship with a star athlete (Johnny Simmons). Sam, meanwhile, is empathetic to everyone but herself, tangling with unhealthy relationships in a manifestation of one of the book’s most loaded lines (“We accept the love we think we deserve”).
If all this sounds insufferably sodden, that’s because it is. But Chbosky’s ability to embolden the quiet moments that only sound loud to ears of a certain age has been purified by live action. Charlie’s plummet and tentative redemption run the angst gamut so conspicuously that it’s easy to snicker when he famously declares that he feels “infinite.” But all you’ve got to do is make a conscious effort to remember that you were once 16, emo and awful to feel the same, at least for a mixtape minute.